The Prophets’ Use of the Marriage/Adultery Metaphor

The concept of marriage is rooted in the Genesis human creation narratives where woman was made of the flesh of man, and they are brought together creating the marriage bond that reunites them into the above-mentioned one flesh. In view of this reunification as one flesh, all other relationships must be secondary to the marital union. The marriage relationship necessitates that one man and one woman have an exclusive, life-long bond where each fully belongs to one another and each strives to remove barriers that would separate the relationship. This is the vision of marriage and is the foundation for the metaphor of marriage between God and his covenanted people─the Israelites.[1]

The marriage metaphor of God in relation to his people is unique in the ancient Near East. None of the surrounding nations referred to their gods as a husband nor did any of the nations have covenants with their gods that emphasized fidelity as portrayed by marital obligations.[2] The marriage metaphor was an effective rhetorical tool used by the prophets because of its biographical nature. When the marriage metaphor was used, it conjured up various aspects of relationships ─ “courtship, marriage, the honeymoon period, betrayal, alienation, divorce and reconciliation.”[3] Thus, the history of Israel becomes biography as the people turn from God and are personified as an unfaithful spouse.[4] Referring to the unfaithful wife imagery, Pate et al. write, “This is perhaps the central imagery that paints the seriousness of the Idolatry charge. For example, the harlotry/unfaithful wife image runs throughout Jeremiah; indeed, it is one of the central images he uses. Ezekiel also uses this relational picture in Ezekiel 16. And poor Hosea lives out the heart-breaking drama in his own life.”[5]

Present readers may find the intertwinement of the marriage metaphor, covenant and adultery as foreign and archaic, especially if both marriage and covenant are viewed and defined, within the ANE historical context, as “relationships between unequals, with the stronger, dominant party responsible for the protection and maintenance of the other.”[6]  Furthermore, there may be objection in the present day to the appearance of a misogynist message throughout the prophets.[7] These are valid observations, but they should not lead readers to change the metaphors of the scriptural witness. Readers should not deconstruct the text based on their cultural progress, but rather should use a responsible hermeneutic that seeks God’s truth even among the ancient historical context that is strikingly different than the present day. Moreover, the message of the adultery theme must not be overlooked since its primary focus in on the spiritual life of God’s people. If the idea of spiritual adultery is considered too remote or irrelevant to use in today’s culture, then people are liable to be deceived into idolatry like the Israelites.[8] Ray Ortland defends the continued use of the adultery metaphor. He writes,

The harlot metaphor is an apt figure for the sin it points to. I affirm this, because I believe that in actual reality God is a perfect ‘husband’ to his people, our sins really are a betrayal of him, and thus a moral category exists for which the image of a harlot is a reasonable fit. It is not the only metaphor useful for directing our thoughts toward this moral category; but when God’s love is primarily in view, our harlotry is a meaningful description of our rejection of his love for the love of others.[9]


[1] Raymond C. Ortlund, God’s Unfaithful Wife: a Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery (Intervarsity Press, 2002), 23. [2] Elaine June Adler, The Background for the Metaphor of Covenant as Marriage in the Hebrew Bible (UMI, 1991), 2-3. [3] Ibid., 29.[4] Ibid., 29. [4] Marvin C. Pate et. al. The Story of Israel: a Biblical Theology (InterVarsity Press, 2004), 94. [5] Adler, The Background, 94. [6] Ibid., 94. [7] Ortlund, God’s Unfaithful, 181-182. [8] Ibid., 176. [9] Ibid., 183.